Perusing the plays of Charles Wood, as part of my Richard Lester inquiries.
Wood was brought in to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, as one Royal Court playwright to another, into Lester’s film THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, and formed a close connection with the director, collaborating on HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA (uncredited), THE BED SITTING ROOM and CUBA. There’s also a whole host of unfilmed screenplays, stored at the BFI – an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s The King (King Arthur in WWII), and a many-titled picture about communist Russia In which Robin Williams was to have played a bad actor with a passing resemblance to Stalin, who can do a passable Georgian accent when drunk, who gets hired to play the great dictator in a biopic. The production treats him like shit and he gives a lousy performance, so they realize he needs the star treatment to build his ego up and make him feel like a world leader. He gets part-use of a limo (he has to share it with a performing bear) and various other perks, but now success goes to his head, he refuses the sequel, and is pursued by the authorities. Lester envisaged the film almost as a silent movie – in one gag, Williams would jump in a boat and launch it, but it’s a movie prop boat that’s only been built down one side, to give one good camera angle, like Cameron’s TITANIC. It sinks.
The movie didn’t even get a chance to sink. Williams’ career was stone-cold after POPEYE and they couldn’t get any interest from studios, who didn’t want another communist-themed movie so soon after REDS (as if there would be any resemblance).
The source for the screenplay was Red Monarch, a collection blackly comic tales by Yuri Krotkov, who had access to the real inside dope on Stalin’s Russia. For instance, Stalin’s screening room had a cement floor, like a bunker – no carpets – because film directors anxiously awaiting his verdict on their work would habitually soil themselves with terror. A smooth floor made it easier for the cleaning ladies.
Later, Wood adapted the Stalin stuff in the book into RED MONARCH, starring Colin Blakely as Uncle Joe himself, a quirky piece directed by Jack Gold. Blakely plays Stalin as Northern Irish. A bold choice, some would say.
Wood’s best-known non-Lester film is probably THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, filmed in Turkey by Tony Richardson with a substantial budget and a mighty cast – David Hemmings and the entire British acting establishment, it feels like. Richard Williams provides animated inserts inspired by Punch cartoons…
Gielgud was terrified of his horse but managed to give a great perf in the saddle and out. “I’m an old man, Airey, and I’ve only got one arm. To fight the war with, it won’t be enough, eh?” Later, having disastrously appointed warring brothers-in-law Lucan and Cardigan to command his cavalry, he muses, “We must try to keep those two apart. Don’t let them sit together at dinner. Things are serious and they’re silly in ways.”
Wood’s syntax can resemble Burroughsian fold-ins at times. In THE KNACK he creates sentences that sound like typos spoken allowed: “Behaving? her lot was doing the behaving! All that leaping about in those… that’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour!” And no, it’s no mistake: Michael Crawford really does say “That’s what I behaviour.”
Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, with much softening of the edges of the extreme widescreen frame, and boldly and beautifully cut by Kevin Brownlow, the movie is resolutely unheroic, gloomy, absurd and peculiar, with Wood’s dialogue crafted under the influence of Thackeray and giving a real sense of the strangeness of historic speech (years later, Wood scripted an episode of Napoleonic thick-ear saga Sharpe, and the sudden influx of weird syntax and authentic military slang was startling – and totally unremarked by TV reviewers).
What interested me about Wood’s theatre work is not just his dazzling language, so conspicuous in the films, but the filmic elements. Veterans is clearly inspired by the characters encountered on CHARGE – on stage, John Gielgud played a perfect caricature of himself (Sir Geoffrey Kendle), while John Mills embodied a character clearly, and wickedly, modelled at least a bit on Trevor Howard (Mr Laurence “Dotty” D’Orsay – probably bits of Olivier thrown in).
You can just hear Gielgud-as-Kendle’s quizzical singsong delivery in this exchange, early on, when the audience may not know if they’re dealing with actors or real Victorian soldiers ~
MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. Are you called upon to do much? I’m sorry, I never know what anyone does until years afterwards… do you do much?
SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Fighting? No, no, not any more. Quite a lot at the beginning of things… day after miserable day I walloped about on a carthorse sticking a sword into astonished people, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.
Even Wood’s punctuation is astoundingly right. He could have made do with a full stop after “people,” and maybe have gotten two distinct laughs on each sentence, but the comma suggests that Kendle is rushing on to the next thought, with just the right daffy air of Gielgudian distractedness. It’s exactly 45% funnier.
Later, in a classic bit of Gielgud foot-in-mouth, Sir Geoffrey accidentally insults his friend, who has just been called to battle (filming). Attempting to back-pedal out of it, he digs himself deeper ~
SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. You must be wanted on the field of battle; I’m not the least surprised, it’s complete chaos, they’re dragging in everybody wears a uniform, oh, oh dear me… ah, Dotty, is that your horse there? What a nice quiet horse it is, not like my nag, a fiend on four legs, has to have a leg tied up every time I am called on to say a few words; still, you don’t have much to say, oh, you know what I mean, ah yes, he seems very gentle and considerate, I do like the look of him…
MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. I may not be quite so important as you Geoffrey, Sir Geoffrey, in regard to the length of the sword knot I am given, or the words I am expected to speak… but I am an excellent horseman.
SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Oh you are, you are!
MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. If my mount impresses you withg his manners it is perhaps because I have schooled him.
SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. It is, it is, a very nice old thing.
MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. …and not because he is too old or lacks spirit to be troublesome.
SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. No, no, a most perfect animal—full of mettle, I can see it, I can see he is a first-rate ride, gives an impression of gentleness. I know you’re a fine horseman, I’ve seen you riding about awfully well and never look like falling off.
The play is dedicated to Richard Lester, and by way of wriggling out of the charge that he has written some kind of drame a clef (is that even a thing?), Wood says in his intro ~
“All the films I have worked on have contributed to Veterans and more interestingly than gossip I hope the play is concerned with deceit, exploitation and treachery within an empire/industry run by gangsters, funny in their pretensions, vicious in their actions, showing a pathetic regard for skills and talent, and how these gangsters can be used by talented people who have acquired other talents like deceit, treachery, and the ability to be totally selfish yet remain on the best of terms with everyone, but for what?”
During the shooting of CHARGE, Wood discovered Norman Rossington, reduced to the ranks, sitting up front with the officers, and asked him why he was positioned so inappropriately. “Because I am a highly-paid feature player,” replied Rossington, and the line duly found its way into Veterans.
Has ‘Washington’ Legs? Is a quasi-sequel, an occasional play presented for America’s bicentennial. It has one character in common, the crewmember Bernie the Volt. Bob Hoskins essayed the part in the first play, but here he’s been promoted to the role of a producer (and we can already hear the patented Hoskins “Amurrican” accent) while Albert Finney played legendary director John Bean (a Huston/Ford amalgam). The best stuff belongs to the character of English writer Sir Flute Parsons (Robert Stephens), who gets many dithering speeches such as this hilariously incorrect attempt to ingratiate himself with an American ~
SIR FLUTE: I’m ridiculously grateful to you and your Revolution, taught us a lesson you see . . . of course we went on and did even better for a while without you, but what about that marvelous music you’ve given us, would we have had that? I doubt it, we threw our black people off our conscience such a long time ago and all we got was steel bands and calypso, which was a little sad, because we had treated them quite badly, obviously not badly enough, needed more than that to produce a really solid contribution, and now you all do it don’t you, white and black, possibly white a bit more than black, jitterbugging . . . I used to be able to, I do have a natural grace in the same way that many of you don’t, but it isn’t an English characteristic on the whole, wish it was, so there you are . . . you’ve done awfully well and we wouldn’t have you different, and we’re awfully glad we lost, isn’t it time we started to enjoy some of the fruits of defeat . . . perhaps we did at the time, we got India and look what that’s done for Bradford, transformed it . . . very exciting.
Dingo was first performed in 1967 and has fascinating connections with Wood & Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR, released the same year. It shares a WWII military setting (Wood served for five years in the 17/21st Lancers Regiment) and even contains some of the same lines (“The thing about fighting a desert war is that it is a clean war. Clean-limbed, without dishonourable action on either side.”) More, it features a Comic who intersperses inane music-hall patter with the speeches of Churchill and Montgomery. It’s an extremely disturbing piece of work, even more brutal and obscene than the Lester film, and a proper bit of Brechtian epic theatre.
Wood’s script for HOW I WON THE WAR has the same density — I was surprised when I got hold of the source novel, which Lester said he hated, to find that quite big chunks are reproduced exactly, such as Michael Hordern’s disjointed ramblings about “the wily Pathan” — I would have sworn that stuff was vintage Wood. I can now see that what Lester and Wood did was superimpose the attitude of Dingo onto Patrick Ryan’s novel, which is a jolly romp. Contrasting the savagery of war with the breezy chin-up attitude traditionally applied by the Brits produces the obscenity that the film is about.
Wood’s more recent films haven’t appealed to me much, not I think because his powers had waned but because the industry was demanding less interesting stuff. AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE offered up one shellshocked character with echolalia, whose verbal reprises offered a glimpse of the more surreal Wood of yore. On IRIS and THE OTHER MAN he shared credit with director Richard Eyre, which I always kind of resented. Only rarely should directors take a co-writing credit. IRIS began with the idea that we’d see the characters played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent at all stages of their lives, which would have made everything excitingly strange — the youthful scenes would have been obviously memories, and perhaps distorted ones, recalled from old age. Miramax nixed that idea, which led to Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville stepping in and in my view made the film not worth making. Movies about writers tend to succeed based on how they manage to evoke the writing, and IRIS doesn’t give the slightest clue to what its central character got up to with a typewriter. The only bit I really liked was the reaction of Iris, now afflicted with dementia, to a Tony Blair speech: “Education, education, education!” “Why does he keep saying that?”
Wood has a cameo in THE KNACK — he and Lester also voiced a lot of the “Greek chorus of disapproval” muttering away on the soundtrack, a disapproving middle-aged commentary running in counterpoint to the action and consisting of peculiar non sequiturs — “I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.” “I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.” “Well I come from Hampton Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”
The screenplay of HELP! was published recently as a bonus with the deluxe DVD of the film. It’s a great read — even Wood’s stage directions are magnificent. He’s incapable of ordinary sentences.